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A Call to Invest in Community Healing, Health, and Resilience
By Isra Pananon, MPA

Thank goodness for caring and concerned citizens. Thank goodness for health care workers. Thank goodness for delivery persons and postal workers. And an extra thank goodness for mutual aid groups.

As I go through my daily gratitude routine, these are the formative thoughts that come to mind. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we are all suffering in some shape or form because trauma is everywhere. The coronavirus forced us into a national lockdown causing widespread isolation and more than 400,000 deaths, and white supremacists committed an insurrection against our government. All of these events and ongoing violence have revealed that America hasn’t fully reckoned with its institutional racism problems. Our most vulnerable communities, communities of color, are suffering. As a social worker and public servant, I believe we have a moral responsibility to advocate that the government invest in our neighborhoods and communities closest to the grief.

On April 12, The New York Times reported that there were at least 476 new coronavirus deaths and 72,286 new cases in the United States. Although cases are declining in our most devastated cities, vaccines have been slow to roll out due to lack of coordination between federal, state, and local entities.

To manage this ongoing crisis, we need policymakers to address not only the virus but also community-level issues such as access to care, food insecurity, affordable housing, and jobs. Without a doubt, all of these issues are linked and can be understood only by those who live and work in these communities. We need to fund local systems that work in proximity to those affected.

In January, an egregious display of privilege and violence took place at the Capitol building during a national pandemic. Insurrectionists broke windows, invaded policymakers’ offices, and erected a noose on the Capitol lawn while our nation watched the events unfold on live television. While the United States is no stranger to violence, the insurrection magnified the inequities that exist in our country and caused traumatic experiences for those directly affected and possible vicarious trauma for those watching at home.

According to Psychology Today, “Many people who do not work directly within that population may nonetheless experience a disquieting sense of unease, anxiety, or even physical symptoms that do not appear to be directly tied to present life circumstances.” What happened that day eroded a sense of fairness and trust in our government, and the only appropriate response is to reassure the American people that the government will fight for its most vulnerable communities and invest in community mental health care.

In the backdrop of the pandemic and the insurrection is our country’s ongoing battle with racism and racial inequity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dedicated an entire web page to “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” They claim, “We need programs and practices that fit the communities where racial and minority groups live, learn, work, play, and worship.” I couldn’t agree more. Communities of color are vaccinated at much slower rates and have a greater risk of being impacted by COVID-19. Returning to local strategies and local funding will help reduce this risk.

As a society we are experiencing collective, compounded trauma and grief. According to Mental Health America, the “federal role in mental health includes regulating systems and providers, protecting the rights of consumers, providing funding for services, and supporting research and innovation.”

We need the government to do more, and that involves greater funding for community health centers and other resilience measures such as disaster relief and regulations related to low-income housing.

To those who say it can’t be done, it’s been done before and involves a reimagining of how our federal dollars are distributed. We can’t rely on mutual aid groups, frontline workers, and activists alone. We must invest in a system that upholds and proliferates their efforts. Fund community health through a recovery package and ongoing appropriations. Compounded trauma needs and requires our long-term support of community health.

— Isra Pananon, MPA, is an advocate, veteran, and public servant. She spent the past decade working in various roles and organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, the George Washington University Center for Excellence in Public Leadership, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Army Reserve, and the U.S. Department of the Interior as a presidential appointee. Currently, Pananon works at the Natural Resources Defense Council and is finishing her second master’s degree in social work at NYU. Pananon has a strong interest in community resilience, public leadership, and mental health equity.